In the midst of a worldwide “holy crusade” to demonize fossil fuels, blaming them for alleged (but not real) catastrophic global warming, it is increasingly essential that more and more ordinary citizens like you and me understand what’s at stake. The war on fossil fuels threatens not just minor adjustments at the margins of our luxury but enormous reductions in human welfare in developed countries—and the permanent captivity of one-third of humanity in desperate poverty.
That’s why we’re honored to partner with the Texas Public Policy Foundation in publishing a new edition of Kathleen Hartnett White’s outstanding study, Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case. From it you’ll learn not only how essential fossil fuels are to human material wellbeing, but also how to tell your friends about them—so they won’t be duped by the fear mongers.
Here’s an excerpt that introduces the value of fossil fuels not just for energy but for many other uses, too:
Use of the energy in fossil fuels unleashed economic productivity on a scale previously unimaginable. When innovative minds developed a steam engine which could convert the stored heat energy in coal into mechanical energy, the economic limits under which all human societies had formerly existed were blown apart. A life of back-breaking drudgery was no longer the inescapable condition of the overwhelming majority of mankind.
Life expectancy had changed little throughout all human history until the Industrial Revolution; it thereafter tripled. Income per capita has since increased 11-fold. Not coincidentally, man-made emissions of carbon dioxide have risen three-fold since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Fossil-fuel powered mechanization revolutionized economic productivity, increased incomes, population, and life expectancy across all classes.
Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, captures the magnitude of the breakthrough: “By 1870, the burning of coal in Britain was generating as many calories as would have been expended by 850 million laborers. It was as if each worker had 20 servants at his beck and call. The capacity of the country’s steam engines alone was equivalent to six million horses. … That is how much energy had been harnessed to the application of the division of labor. That is how impossible the task of Britain’s 19th century miracle would have been without fossil fuels.”
Fossil fuel use and the consequent anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) also have greatly expanded the global food supply. Fertilizer derived from natural gas has increased agricultural productivity by 40–60 percent. Fossil fuel-based fertilizers have saved vast natural ecosystems from conversion to cropland. Although combustion of fossil fuels releases pollutants, those emissions can be dramatically reduced far quicker through technological controls than can the reversion of cropland to natural ecosystems be achieved. Rather than ravaging the natural world as environmentalists assume, fossil fuels have allowed industrial civilizations to shrink the human footprint. And the increased atmospheric concentration of man-made CO2 has enhanced plant growth and thus the world’s food supply.
Synthetic fibers derived from fossil fuels now account for 60 percent of all fibers. Basic materials such as plastic, vinyl, and fiberglass constitute the raw material in thousands of products in daily use. The prosperity supported by abundant fossil fuel energy allows investment in effective technologies to eliminate harmful pollution.
Renewable energy still provides only a sliver of energy supply. In spite of the billions of dollars in subsidies, retail prices for renewables are still far higher than prices for fossil fuels. In European countries which rushed too quickly to embrace renewable energy, families regress to burning wood for heat and cooking because electricity is unaffordable. German officials warn that soaring energy costs risk “dramatic deindustrialization.”
At any cost, renewable energy from wind, solar, and biomass remains diffuse, unreliable, and parasitic, in that those intermittent sources rely on fossil fuels for back-up. And while nuclear fission provides energy comparable or superior to fossil fuels, it cannot provide the versatile benefits mentioned above. Additionally, the public remains resistant to broad deployment of nuclear generation.
Energy-dense, abundant, versatile, reliable, portable, and affordable, fossil fuels provide over 80 percent of the world’s energy because they are superior to the current alternatives. Until energy sources fully comparable or superior to fossil fuels are securely available, policies to reduce emissions of CO2 should proceed with caution lest they prematurely exhaust the well-springs of mankind’s greatest advance.
There’s much, much more in this great study.